Post Politics Hour: Sen. Bunning, Post Office, more

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Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; 11:00 AM

Federal Eye blogger Ed O'Keefe took your questions about who is up and who is down in the world of politics and the latest news out of Washington.

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Ed O'Keefe: Good morning and welcome to what promises to be a busy and informative Post Politics Hour. I'm Ed O'Keefe, author of The Federal Eye blog that tracks federal government news.

There's PLENTY going on today -- including the grim news from the U.S. Postal Service and the ongoing furloughs at the Transportation Department. Here we go!

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Post office customer in Rockville: John E. Potter (Postmaster General of the United States) seems to be in the process of asking for a lot more federal money while defending his agency which is expected to lose $238 billion in the next 10 years. Other businesses have survived when there was a business downturn. Why can't the post office? Are we dealing with another bloated government agency? Companies go out of business when they can't compete.

washingtonpost.com: U.S. postmaster delivers bundle of bad news

Ed O'Keefe: One big misconception that we're going to kill early in this chat: The Postal Service is NOT seeking a government bailout and is not seeking subsidies for the universal service it provides.

It does have a $15 billion debt limit with the U.S. treasury. By September the mail agency anticipates being just $1.8 billion shy of that limit.

But Potter made it infinitely clear during a briefing for reporters on Monday that he doesn't want USPS to seek taxpayer assistance, because of the current economic climate, the obvious impact it would make on the treasury and the fact that they believe they can go it alone.

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Reston, VA: Great article today about Bunning, although it was buried in the middle of the A section. For the past week or more, the left has been beating the "Bunning is taking your unemployment pay" drum beat. Conspicuously absent from their meme was what was outlined in the article:

House Democrats could nip this in the bud and extend funding. However, moderate -Democrats- are opposing the funding.

Once again, the majority party seems to be spared any responsibility on the left.

What specifically is in the bill that is making Democrats balk? Is it the size? Specific funding measures?

washingtonpost.com: Senate maneuver stalls jobs bill

Ed O'Keefe: It's both of those things, yes, but the bill could have easily cleared the House with the Democratic majority. It could not of course make it through the Senate with the lack of a supermajority.

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Make up your mind: So the Post and other media outlets have been running dozens of stories stating that Rahm Emanuel has too much influence in the White House and is screwing up things.

Now we got a story that says he's not influential enough!

At some point, stuff like this makes the Post look like it's more interested in filling space than it is in accurately reporting the truth.

So what is the truth?

washingtonpost.com: Emanuel as a voice of reason?

Ed O'Keefe: The truth is in the eye of the beholder on this one and Washington isn't sure what to make of Rahm Emanuel: Maybe he's good for President Obama, maybe he's bad. So at this point, we've presented both arguments.

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Bristow, Va.: Five day mail delivery, like term limits for Congress, should have been imposed forty years ago. The energy alone that is saved (oil and wind), justifies it.

Ed O'Keefe: And national polling backs you up, Bristow. Potter seems to believe he'll get Congress to give him five days of delivery and maybe a few other items. Stay tuned.

Interestingly -- the one thing customers really don't want is the Postal Service to stop delivering mail directly to them. They explored possibly setting up "clusterboxes" in neighborhoods that would house everyone's mail box in one location (which is done in newer subdivisions). But polling and customer surveys showed folks didn't like that idea, so USPS backed off those plans.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Is there a requirement that the USPS has to have a post office within each ZIP code? What are the requirements for that post office? Could the Postal Service sell off some of its properties and provide basic postal services out of a much smaller storefront?

(I'm not sure what other people would do with some of those post offices, though. The post office in Sunspot, New Mexico, is only as big as an outhouse.)

Ed O'Keefe: Yes -- by law, every zip code must have a post office. That's why military bases and even the White House have one, because they have their own Zip code.

The plans call for keeping those offices in each Zip, but then close down and consolidate other locations and eventually provide some services and products in grocery stores, pharmacies, coffee shops and office supply stores.

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Cool Kids: Hey, kids today want to be cool, just like President Obama, so they want to take up smoking. Think that might get Barack Obama to stop smoking?

Ed O'Keefe: Yes -- The White House has been very careful to address this issue. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday that the president chews nicotine gum but occasionally slides and smokes. He gets asked about it in interviews and gets defensive.

The big challenge or question is: Will we ever see a photo of President Obama smoking?

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Washington, D.C.: I'm one of the employees furloughed from DOT. Is there any estimate on when the Jobs bill will be pass to provide for the extension to Highway Trust Fund authority? Or has Congress thought of passing an extension to the HTF separately?

Ed O'Keefe: You're one of rougly 2,000 folks at DOT agencies impacted.

The earliest you'll get back to work is Thursday, when lawmakers could vote on the bill.

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Problems with Postal Service: I try to use the automated postal centers, but they are not in all post offices, and you cannot use every single service available at the window.

The big Ben Franklin post office at 12th and Penn. Ave. in D.C. is no longer open early. It is closed when I go to work and closed when I leave work. I can only go on my lunch hour. They no longer have a separate place to process passport applications. I have stood in lines of 20 people for 35 minutes. For 30 of those minutes, one of the two clerks is only processing passport applications, so one clerk is actually serving 20 customers. When I left, there were 25 customers waiting in line behind me.

I was told they lost two clerks about a year ago because they were "overstaffed." What a joke.

Ed O'Keefe: You speak to the biggest challenges that the Postal Service faces. That's why you've seen increased eagerness on the part of agency officials to get into private retail locations -- like grocery stores and pharmacies.

I'm sitting in the basement of L'Enfant Plaza right now at the Postal Service meeting with its biggest customers, postal unions, lawmakers and others. An official on stage just said that while the Postal Service currently operates roughly 36,000 post offices and branches, it wants to eventually offer its services in more than 200,000 locations nationwide -- thus mostly in third party retail locations.

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Washington, DC: Seems to me that the outrage at Senator Bunning is a prime example of the "entitlement" mentality. Unemployment benefits were always going to expire yesterday. Bunning didn't "cut people off." But once a bill is passed, people then expect it to be renewed, and renewed, and renewed.

Is the view now that if you become unemployed, the government should support you until you find another job no matter how long that takes or how much it costs? The expectation that all spending that exists today will continue to exist and we will add additional spending for whatever arises is completely unsustainable.

All Bunning is saying is that before we extend this spending, we need to pay for it. He even suggested a solution, in using some of the unspent stimulus money - which was intended for things like road construction and unemployment support - in the first place. Doesn't seem all that irresponsible to me, and I'm a Dem....

Ed O'Keefe: Washington, you've summed up Bunning's viewpoints brilliantly.

He wants the bill passed (so yes -- it appears the mentality IS to renew) but he wants it paid for responsibly. HIs idea to use unspent stimulus money however is risky, because the stimulus money won't get doled out in its entirety for another year or so.

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Will we ever see a photo of President Obama smoking? : Did we ever see a photo of Laura Bush smoking?

Ed O'Keefe: Nope -- another photo that would have been very interesting to see. If, of course, she smoked while living in the White House.

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Washington, D.C.: Think it's interesting Sen. Lincoln is in trouble, as I think she and some other fencesitters like Conrad thought if they said yes to health care and no to public option, they'd be better off when in fact, the left hates them and the right hates them. As Henry Clay once said, compromise is a hard sell (or maybe it was Rahm Emanuel)?

Ed O'Keefe: Haha yes -- at this point, Blanche Lincoln is emerging as one of, if not the most vulnerable Democrat. The fact that she now faces a primary challenge signals how nervous home state Democrats are with her candidacy. The White House's support for her may her may also hurt back home. Stay tuned.

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"clusterboxes" in neighborhoods that would house everyone's mail box in one location: How would I, a partially-disabled older person, ever be able to collect my mail since I'd be unable to walk such a long distance (and I don't drive)? Would accomodations be made under ADA?

Ed O'Keefe: Well it's not going to happen anyway, precisely for reasons like yours.

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Silver Spring, MD: Just a thought: Jim Bunning is a Senator with nothing to lose. He's not up for re-election. Thus he can do what he feels is right (or with spite) and faces no repercussions.

If we had Term Limits, we'd be looking at several senators and congressmen with this attitude.

Would it be better than what we have now? I don't know, but it wouldn't be pretty.

Ed O'Keefe: Good point Silver Spring! Makes you wonder if term limits are in fact a good idea.

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Woburn, MA: How does the Post Office justify having cluster boxes in new neighborhoods, but not older ones? I have to walk a 1/4 mile to my cluster box, but people on the next street get it delivered to them at their house. My mail costs the same, how is this justified or even legal?

Ed O'Keefe: Not sure exactly how it's legal, but my understanding is that basically the Postal Service negotiates the clusterbox options with your local planning or town boards. So take it up with them.

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Bethesda, MD: Ed - nice job with the Post Office article this morning. Do you get the sense that they will discontinue Saturday service, and if so, will a congressman come forward and say, "Actually, you will NOT be touching Saturday service..." like Chuck Schumer did a few years back?

PS - It is inconceivable that 52% of the public supports discontinuing Saturday service.

Ed O'Keefe: Well, Gallup says it's true: That most Americans support cutting Saturday service. Other polling has said the same in the past.

With those numbers, you can anticipate growing support for cutting it on Capitol Hill. The big barriers to doing so include the fact that some big postal customers (magazine companies, Netflix and pharmacies that send prescriptions via the mail) will have to adjust their delivery schedules.

Some have also suggested that lawmakers add a line that says they can only cut Saturday and no other days. That would allay the concerns of folks that the Postal Service will just continue to cut service days until it can right itself.

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Annapolis, MD: The explosion of our consumer transactions via the Internet -- from catalog browsing and ordering to online banking and bill paying -- has resulted in a huge paradigm shift in our society. The idea that the USPS can continue to offer the same service levels with minimal cost increase is absurd. If we myopicly expect them to provide services like they did last century, then raise first-class postage to $1. Otherwise, learn to live with reduced "snail mail" service.

Ed O'Keefe: Actually, they'd have to raise postage stamp prices to roughly 60 cents to break even. (The reporters did the math together at the briefing yesterday.)

I think what's significant about today is that the Postal Service is now formally acknowledging what customers and other outside experts have long believed: That mail volume will never return to pre-recession levels. That admission alone is a big deal.

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Alexandria, VA: Why not one day a week residential mail delivery? Do it the day before my garbage pickup.

Ed O'Keefe: Well Alexandria, it might come to that one day.

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Re: USPS: I don't know where I read this but I believe that in many rural areas of the country, UPS and Fed Ex, when asked to deliver packages to remote locations, turn it over to the Postal Service. Is that true and isn't that at least one of many reasons why the Postal Service can't totally die?

Ed O'Keefe: Yes -- The Postal Service provides "last mile" services to FedEx and UPS. They're one of the Postal Service's biggest customers.

But in turn, USPS contracts with UPS and FedEx to carry some of their packages across the country and around the world.

So they're competitors, but each other's best customers too.

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If we had Term Limits, we'd be looking at several senators and congressmen with this attitude. : We have term limits; they're called elections. Legislated term limits are what make Virginia politics so chaotic; somebody's always running for something.

Ed O'Keefe: Well, yes, true...

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The Reason we're not buying Bunning "Reasons.": It's very simple.

Sen. Bunning voted for a completely unfunded, $800 billion Medicare Part D.

It's that simple. Sen. Bunning cares not for these alleged "principles" when his party is in power. He has no qualms about massive government spending when his part is in power. He isn't particularly concerned about how we are going to fund what is essentially a payout to the drug companies by the taxpayers.

But NOW he's principled? NOW he cares? As he's going out the door, with a Democratic President, and Democratic majorities in both houses?

Convenient. It's lazy journalism not to call the Senator out on his blatant hypocrisy.

Ed O'Keefe: One person's opinion...

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Tempe, Ariz.: Is Kay Bailey Hutchison doesn't win today in her primary, will she still resign, causing a special election to replace this November?

Ed O'Keefe: She told The Post's Dan Balz for a story we published on Saturday that she will resign later this year no matter what. We'll see!

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Rome, NY: Do current rate structures favor mass marketers? Does the catalog, periodical rate acutally pay for itself, or does Congress in its infinte wisdon require letter rate payers to subsidize other mail customers?

Ed O'Keefe: Periodicals, library and nonprofit mail doesn't pay for itself, and the Postal Service currently subsidizes those costs to the tune of about $1 billion a year. Potter said Monday they may raise those rates to close the gap.

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Shiner TX: Considering how often the Feds take off for holidays, I've gotten used to no delivery. Considering it's an artifact of a primitive time, might as well close it out entirely.

My bills get paid online; I buy things online and have them UPS-ed; twitter and social networks obviate the need for personal letters; and I don't know the name of the dude in the postal suit, anyway. Time to put the pony out to pasture, hang up the stirrups, and close the express.

Whiner in Shiner

Ed O'Keefe: Haha Shiner -- thanks for your thoughts.

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Boston: I thought the post office was actually considering cutting delivery on a weekday, keeping Saturday service (presumably because FedEx and UPS pay them quite a bit to deliver their packages on Saturday) - when did this idea go away?

Ed O'Keefe: Well if they were to cut weekday service they'd cut Tuesdays, I'm told, which is the second slowest delivery day.

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Ed O'Keefe: Folks, I've got to run, but thanks for your great questions. Check for updates on Bunning and the Postal Service in my blog, The Federal Eye, throughout the day and I'll chat again with you soon.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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